"Signal Fires" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
A horrific car wreck involving teenagers kicks off “Signal Fires” by Dani Shapiro, an immersive, beautifully constructed novel about how one careless slip in judgement impacts lives ever after.
The book opens in 1985, with Sarah, age 17, and her brother Theo, 15, out for some fun. Sarah, a model student and exemplary leader at her high school, has been drinking and tosses the car keys to her younger brother. He has no experience behind the wheel and is bent on impressing Misty, a girl in the passenger seat. Distracted, Theo hits a stately oak near his home, fatally injuring Misty.
In shock Theo darts to his house to alert his parents; Dr. Benjamin Wilf opens the door to a nightmare that won’t cease—to a truth Benjamin doesn’t even discuss with his wife, Mimi, that underage, inexperienced Theo was driving, not his older sister Sarah. This is the secret that festers within the Wilf family, a secret never talked about between them.
Moving backward and forward in time, Shapiro juggles engrossing narratives centering on the Wilfs and the family across the street, Shenkman, his wife Alice and their son Waldo, a boy genius obsessed with astronomy. The family keeps to themselves, even though Benjamin was instrumental in their lives, delivering Waldo at Alice and Shenkman’s house when Alice went into an early, complicated labor.
Waldo, at 12, is a quirky boy, highly intelligent, but not the kind of child Shenkman envisioned having. Shenkman snaps at him trying to mold Waldo into the son he wants. This is difficult for the now aging Benjamin to understand as he's observed the family across the street from an open window over the years and now prepares to leave his home for good, the move causing him to reflect back on what Theo was like as a child.
As Sarah gets older, marries and has children of her own, she continues to feel responsible for the accident, leading to self-destructive behavior. Theo also suffers, disappearing for years, which breaks Mimi’s heart—yet she’s been to blame too in the coverup, turning a deaf ear to what really happened.
The saving grace for all turns out to be Waldo, a misunderstood child with a rage-filled father. A boy wise beyond his years who develops a relationship with Benjamin after another loss impacts the Wilf family. Innocent, open-minded Waldo understands death and the hereafter, a tender heart whose kindness impacts Benjamin, his adult children and Shenkman too.
“Signal Fires” is a beautiful book to be savored, a novel about the passage of time, about how our experiences shape and change us. It’s a wise, wonderful, thought-provoking read with marvelous, believable characters.